Socks over shoes surpass shoes over socks for strolling on slippery city slopes, says a study done in New Zealand. In other words – in the words of the study itself – "wearing socks over shoes appears to be an effective and inexpensive method to reduce the likelihood of slipping on icy footpaths".
Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams and Patricia Priest did an experiment to test the wisdom of a local winter tradition. The trio, based at the University of Otago in Dunedin, published a report in the New Zealand Medical Journal.
They explain: "There are anecdotal reports that pedestrians who wear socks over the top of their footwear are less likely to slip and fall in icy conditions. Advocates of this practice include our local council (in Dunedin), which advises residents who prefer to walk (rather than drive) in icy conditions to 'put a pair of old socks over your shoes to increase grip'."
Their city has some famously hilly sections that grow treacherous come wintertime: "Damp weather followed by freezing conditions can transform a quick journey to work into a lengthy and perilous expedition."
They "initially considered recruiting volunteers to walk down a short suburban street (Baldwin Street) which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the steepest street in the world". But legal and other considerations led them to instead send people down two other streets, with merely San Francisco-grade inclinations.
Parkin, Williams and Priest found it simple to recruit volunteers: "To be eligible for inclusion in the trial, passing pedestrians simply needed to be travelling downhill. It was decided a priori that persons already wearing socks over shoes w ould not be eligible."
The research team documented every fall, and wrote comments (such as "walked confidently", "clung to fences or parked cars", "crawled") about the demeanor of each volunteer during their descent.
Not all experiments give clear results. This one did. "Wearing socks over footwear significantly reduced the self-reported slipperiness of icy footpaths and a higher proportion of sock-wearers displayed confidence in descending the study slopes. The only falls occurred in people who were not wearing (external) socks."
But despite the safety advantage, wearing one's socks over one's shoes can create or exacerbate a problem. The problem is of a social nature.
In 1989, two researchers extracted gossip from a group of young (aged 7-11) American schoolchildren, asking each child to discuss the reputations of each of their classmates. The kids prattled on about behaviours that, to them, were warning signs of weirdness: "Eats like a pig, bangs head on desk, sounds like a car, fidgety, acts like a monster, wears socks over shoes."
The what-other-people-will-think problem crops up in the Dunedin study. Parkin, Williams and Priest note: "Although participants in the intervention group were told that they could keep their socks, many (who appeared to have image issues) opted to return them to the outcome assessors – including one young man who promptly fell on leaving the assessment area."
Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize
Preventing Winter Falls: a Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention
Children's Perceptions of Peer Reputations and Their Social Reputations Among Peers
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